Latest Issue of Science News

5/2/15 Cover

News

Sponges boom thanks to Antarctic ice shelf bust

Previously thought to grow at a slow pace, the sea creatures exploded in number

By
4:31pm, July 12, 2013

Glass sponges provide habitat for feather and brittle stars in frigid Antarctic waters. The creatures (shown here in the western Weddell Sea) made a surprising emergence following the collapse of the Larsen A ice shelf.

When a catastrophic ice shelf collapse in Antarctica opened up prime ocean real estate, enterprising delicate creatures called glass sponges showed up with unprecedented speed to stake their claim. The finding suggests that even in frigid places, sea life may adapt rapidly to climate change.

Cloaked in darkness and cut off from the photosynthetic power of the sun, the waters beneath Antarctic ice shelves host sparse signs of life. But when a giant shelf collapses — as Larsen A and B did in 1995 and 2002 — solar-powered plankton production ramps up, and scientists think it could jump-start a complex food web of diverse marine life.

A 2007 expedition revealed that sea squirts had taken over the area of the seafloor once shaded by Larsen A. When Claudio Richter, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, and his team went to the same spot in 2011 to see how the squirt coup had progressed, they were shocked at what they found instead.

This article is available only to subscribing members. Join SSP today or Log in.

More from this issue of Science News